In her first year at Munger, Tolles & Olson, attorney Susan Boyd represented a client who'd been arrested and accused of being a terrorist after 9/11. His only crime, she said, was being of Egyptian descent.
She worked on the case pro bono -- without compensation -- for two years, eventually helping the man obtain a green card. The experience reinforced her desire to represent clients who couldn't afford legal help.
"What stands out for me in working on a pro bono case is the impact you can have on someone else's life," said Boyd, an associate who now co-chairs the Los Angeles firm's pro bono committee.
Boyd said Munger, Tolles & Olson's commitment to pro bono work was one of the factors that clinched her decision to join the firm. That same commitment helped propel it to the top of American Lawyer magazine's sixth annual A-List of the country's elite law firms.
It was the first time a Los Angeles firm was ranked first. Previously, only New York firms had held the No. 1 spot, with law firm Debevoise & Plimpton taking top honors the last four years.
"We're thrilled," Munger name partner Ronald Olson said. "Five years or whatever it's been with only New York at the top, I would say the recognition for Los Angeles is overdue."
In crowning the firm this month, American Lawyer wrote: "In tough times, firms with a strong identity, loyal clients and happy lawyers usually continue to succeed. Munger has all of those -- in abundance."
Although Munger was lauded by the magazine for its increase in pro bono work, the firm also keeps an eye on the bottom line. Munger's revenue per lawyer -- another measure in the A-List rankings -- increased 11% to $1.14 million last year, up from $1.03 million in 2006. The firm's total revenue was $205 million.
"We worked harder in '07 -- both our pro bono and our billable hours per attorney were up," co-managing partner Mark Helm said. "I guess there's a sense that one is subsidizing the other, but we take it as: Lawyers are expected to do both and they do do both."
Laurie Levenson, a professor at Loyola Law School, called the No. 1 ranking "a well-deserved recognition" for Munger, which for years has been one of the most prominent law firms in town.
"It indicates that they're a real powerhouse," Levenson said. "They've always been known as a very elite boutique firm that has their hands in very important matters."
Munger, founded in 1962, employs 190 lawyers. Its clients include Boeing Co., Verizon Communications Inc. and Berkshire Hathaway Inc. -- the holding company led by Warren E. Buffett and Charles T. Munger, a founder of the law firm.
Munger, who serves as vice chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, gave up practicing law in 1965 to focus on his investments.
The firm he helped establish has earned an unusual reputation as a place that prides itself on fostering an "owner mentality" among all employees. Munger partners famously have input on how much other partners make. Pro bono hours are not mandated, and all lawyers -- including associates -- get to vote on job candidates and have access to the firm's financials.
"It's a quirky system but it works well for us, and it says a little something about what our values are and how we govern ourselves," Helm said.
On Mondays the firm invites outside speakers to its downtown headquarters for lunch. Architects, scientists and politicians have been asked to participate; one session featured music by a string quartet.
In addition to revenue per lawyer and pro bono hours, American Lawyer judges firms on associate satisfaction and diversity. Most of the categories are self-reported and are designed to provide a ranking that is well-rounded, Editor in Chief Aric Press said.
"We thought that by developing this other scale it would contribute to changing the conversation about what law firms ought to be doing, that it wasn't just about the money," Press said.
Although associate satisfaction and diversity measures fell slightly at Munger in the 2008 rankings, revenue per lawyer and pro bono hours increased significantly.
Munger lawyers logged 15,941 pro bono hours in 2007, about 3,200 hours more than the previous year. More than 100 lawyers spent in excess of 20 hours on pro bono cases, up from 84 in 2006.
"Without that score, they wouldn't have been No. 1," Press said.